What archeology can and cannot do

Archeology can never be a substitute for faith, nor can it "prove" the Bible to be true and trustworthy. It can, when correctly interpreted, illuminate the Scripture record and aid our understanding of it.

Larry G. Herr, Ph.D., is professor of Old Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary, Manila.

The term archeology has a romantic ring to it. Not only are we intrigued with the life and people of today in the exotic lands of the Bible, where shades of Lawrence of Arabia and flashing Bedouins on camels still color our thinking, but our imaginations are captured also by the possibility of exciting finds related to Biblical and other historical events.

Actually, very few archeological finds can be linked clearly and with certainty to events recorded in the Bible. Most often, no clear connection can be established between the archeological remains and Biblical passages, persons, or events. Only after long, painstaking study can tentative connections be made.

Archeology is a science that includes observation (the finding and recording process), description (the reporting process), and interpretation (attributing meaning or relationship to the find). Problems and mistakes can creep into the procedure on each of these three levels. The field worker may have simply observed his find wrongly, or he may have excavated it poorly. Perhaps he did not see it in the correct relationship with its archeological context, or he sloppily entered the data into his record book. The later description of the find may be incomplete or one-sided, leading in turn to a wrong interpretation, which could affect larger, more general conclusions.

Yet, in spite of the strong possibility for error in this archeological process, archeologists are able, in the end, to reach a consensus on a large amount of material primarily because of the exacting methods employed by most of those who are digging today. It is the end result of this long process—the interpretation of the archeological find—that finds its way into these pages of MINISTRY.

Obviously, with so much room for error, archeologists cannot answer with certainty every question put to them. Even when answers can be given, they must often be phrased with a shade of tentativeness, using such terms as possible, probable, apparent, and seems likely. In fact, very few questions asked of archeology can be answered with absolute certainty. This is one reason most Biblical archeologists would deny that archeology proves the Bible; rather, they would say that archeological finds can illuminate the Bible at times. For instance, to know that the city of Jericho was only about 100 meters (328 feet) long by about 50 meters (164 feet) wide solves the perplexing childhood problem of how the Israelites could have walked around the city seven times in one day. Ancient "cities" were much smaller than many villages today!

When we see the huge size of the stones that went into the construction of Herod's temple platform in Jerusalem during the time of Christ, which have been recently uncovered, we understand better the disciples' unwillingness to believe that even these stones were to be destroyed. If we were to excavate the mammoth fortifications used by the Canaanites before and during the Israelite conquest, we could very easily under stand the fear of the Israelite spies. Indeed, as Greek legend puts it, only giants could have built fortifications using such stones.

But archeology also illuminates the Bible by giving us insights into the way Biblical people lived. Although only the foundations of houses are usually found, many indications remain of the people's wealth (or lack of it). We can excavate a typical street of Jeremiah's time and thus be able to understand the attention necessary to negotiate the street without spraining an ankle (many streets were very uneven). The remains of a garbage pile in the street just outside a door indicate that sanitation and the environment were not particular concerns of the people of his day. Countless insights and glimpses such as these into the unheralded aspects of life in Biblical times could be given.

Archeological finds give a certain dimension of reality and completeness to the Biblical stories. One's intuitive understanding of Biblical stories is enhanced as he feels a measured sense of identity with the people involved. Jeremiah becomes more than a powerful, weeping, angry prophet. He is put into a context the Bible never hints at because those aspects of life perhaps were too ordinary to be mentioned in Scripture. Yet understanding this context can, in turn, indirectly aid our understanding of the broader Biblical truths emanating from these stories.

Although this broader knowledge can be a confirming comfort to our faith, archeology can never be a substitute for faith or a proof of faith. Unfortunately, the Biblical passages that can be best illustrated and illuminated by archeology tend to be those that have little to do with great theological themes or doctrines. One such example is 1 Kings 9:15, which describes the building activities of Solomon (see MINISTRY, September, 1978, pp. 26, 27). The historicity of this text has been virtually proved, but it does nothing to aid the theological endeavor. Likewise, those texts that are significant theologically or upon which doctrines are based are almost always impossible to test archeologically.

Archeological confirmation of Biblical truths occurs indirectly when related passages are illuminated, on the principle that if part of the Bible is shown to be correct, the probability increases that other parts are correct as well. Such reasoning can never be proved absolutely true, yet our intuition tells us it is true, and our faith is reconfirmed and comforted. Thus archeology can play a positive role in the pastoral concerns of the minister.

In the interpretive process archeologists often try to identify their finds with historical events recorded in literary sources, especially the Bible. Doing so provides a historical context and thus an added dimension to their find. Financial support for excavations is also much easier to secure if a connection with Biblical events can be shown.

However, this is one point where archeology is weakest. Archeology is object oriented. The archeologist can not often tell us with certainty who was involved with the ancient objects dis covered or with the events they imply. At the same time the Biblical record is highly personality-oriented and is not primarily concerned with objects. To connect a Biblical passage or event with archeological remains necessitates identifying the people involved with the objects they left behind. Without explicit written records, this is simply not possible to do with certainty.

For example, we may be correct in our observation that a massive destruction laid our site in ruins. We may also be correct in dating that destruction to the early fourteenth century B.C., the Biblical date of the conquest of Canaan. But we may not be correct in identifying the destroyer as the invading Israelites. There were simply too many other possible causes for that city's destruction, including other warring groups operating at that time, as well as various natural causes. What we do know is that a destruction occurred; other indications might suggest who the destroyers were, but these are seldom clear-cut.

Great care is thus needed in the interpretive process. When John Garstang excavated Jericho in the 1930s, he found the remains of a thick wall that appeared to have been violently destroyed. With little to go on beyond the fact of the destruction and the identification of the site with Jericho, he ascribed the wall to the Canaanite city destroyed by Joshua and the invading Israelites. Because everyone was anticipating the discovery of Joshua's wall, his interpretation was immediately accepted by many.

However, when Kathleen Kenyon began work at the site in the 1950s with greatly improved techniques for excavating and recording, the wall turned out to have been destroyed several hundred years before the time of Joshua and the Israelites. The old interpretation that was thought to support the Bible had to be discarded.

Moreover, the Biblical archeologist is not without problems even where archeologically testable passages are concerned. We are sometimes forced to suspend judgment on some interpretations of archeological remains because they seem to conflict with Biblical data. Some archeologists resort to textual, philological, or archeological gymnastics to fit the archeological evidence to the Biblical passage. Others simply say that not enough evidence is available and hold their conclusions in check. Not every problem can be easily solved.

For example, the Bible indicates that early man tended to live many times longer than man today. So far, the anthropological evidence on excavated skeletons from early periods does not confirm these old ages. In fact, the age at death as estimated by the anthropologists tends to be lower than today's average. We can explain these problematic findings in a number of ways: (1) People aged more slowly, and different processes are reflected in the skeletal remains. (2) Archeologists may be wrong in assigning early dates to these skeletons; they may not have been contemporaries with the long-lived men of Genesis. (3) Skeletons of adults who lived to a ripe old age may not yet have been found. (4) If an anthropologist found a skeleton of an individual who lived considerably longer than we do today, would he be able to recognize that fact, since his guide to estimating age is comparatively modern data?

Although the problem is not solved by these explanations, neither perhaps is it such a compelling problem as it seemed at first, even though some of the suggested explanations are a bit forced. Certainly our faith is not shattered, and we are able to realize that in the end everything will harmonize.

Archeological results often confirm cherished interpretations of Biblical texts. Sometimes, however, they do not, and we realize that our former ideas have been wrong. In such cases, it is not the Bible that is mistaken; the problem is with our faulty understanding. The archeological remains have given us new light, although we need to be extremely careful that our interpretation of the archeological remains and their relation to the Bible material is correct. If the weight of evidence shows that it is, then we can move forward in our convictions.

This process, however, is not completed in a moment. Much careful thought must be given to the data presented by the finds. Hypotheses must be tested and confirmed.

I cannot think of a single instance where archeological finds have leveled a broadside against any central Biblical truths as we interpret them. However, archeology has altered, or should alter, our understanding of numerous details, tangential to the central message of the Bible. Such details do not change our overall approach to faith, and we generally look upon these data as valuable insights. The small size of Jericho is one indisputable piece of evidence that has altered our understanding.

More important, however, is the gradual accumulation of hundreds of data points on a variety of subjects that, when considered together, encourage a different overall picture, or model, than the one we may have previously believed concerning a Biblical event or topic. Anyone who has studied medieval art knows how differently those people perceived Biblical phenomena than we do today.

Most paintings of the Tower of Babel today are patterned after a medieval minaret in the town of Samarra in Iraq. We really do not know what the Tower of Babel looked like, although it may have had the appearance of a ziggurat (a stepped temple tower in ancient Mesopotamia). If archeology should ever indicate to us what the Tower of Babel looked like, we might have to change both these ideas.

To alter our previous interpretations of Biblical ideas does not mean that the Bible was wrong. It means that with humility we are simply confirming that our previous understanding was imperfect. There is no problem with the Bible, only with us. But when we consider the data with diligent questioning and draw certain conclusions, archeology has provided added insight to God's Word. It not only illuminates what we already know, but gives us access to new information as well.

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Larry G. Herr, Ph.D., is professor of Old Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary, Manila.

February 1983

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